Two big clubs of the Premier League era with contrasting amounts of optimism and morale right now meet at Old Trafford tomorrow. Old foes who are now friends are at the helm and whilst Keane and Vieira may no longer dictate just how dirty this fixture will be, it remains one of the most anticipated games of the season.
United vs. Arsenal is rarely dull and given the ongoings both on and off the pitch in the past week at both clubs, this game should be as enthralling.
It’s hard to know what to say or where to begin when introducing Arsenal. Last season went from potentially bountiful to downright messy as they lost in the League Cup final, lost to Barcelona in the Champions League, were beaten a youth United side in the FA Cup and ended up finished 4th in the league meaning they’d have to play a qualifier to get into the Champions League. Roll on a summer of investment and re-energising…
…Well not quite. In came Gervinho, a winger a bit more direct than anything they already had but yet no signs of any experienced centre back or central midfielder. Instead, Carl Jenkinson was plucked from Charlton with a similar fairytale of a story to that of Chris Smalling. He was joined by Ryo Myaichi who now having been granted a work permit and impressing out on loan last year has formed part of the first team squad. In true recent style, Joel Campbell was signed – a player without a work permit (following Miyaichi, Pedro Botelho, Vela, Galindo and Wellington Silva). Finally, there was the classic Wengerite signing, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – very young, very hyped-up, seemingly very talented, and lots of money (circa £12m up front for a 17 year old).
Yet whilst the average age of the squad was reduced by signings youngsters, it was only lowered further by the loss of four first teamers. Eboue moved to Galatasaray in Turkey whilst Man City paid over £30m for Clichy and Nasri – the latter claiming to have turned down United for the Blues. Finally, captain Fabregas got his move back home to Barcelona. Roughly £70m received in fees and with four days left of the transfer window, almost none of it invested in players for the present. There are signs things aren’t quite right though – Nasri and Cesc have both made unsubtle remarks about the fans and the stadium whilst the ballsy little tyke, Frimpong, decided to publicly have a little dig at Nasri on Twitter.
Sympathy can be had with our often optimistically cocky enemy Arsenal fans – the very same who proudly boasted they’d win the quadruple last year (ignore the generalisation – not all were quite so deluded!). Right now though they appear to be mislead, the manger of their club is a legend but all good things must come to an end. The Wenger-out movement has grown immeasurably over the past six months as the fans want a return to glory days.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Financially Arsenal are as strong as ever and despite losing players who didn’t want to be at the club, they’ve still got talent right throughout their squad. Van Persie for now is their captain and if he can stay fit he alone could fire them to a top four place. At the back they have Vermaelen back, a player of class and someone with leadership qualities. They still have last year’s talented youngsters, a year older, wiser, more experienced and now with the pain of knowing what failure feels like – Wilshere, Ramsey and Szczesny are no ordinary players. It now remains to be seen just how and whether Wenger will add to his squad for the season ahead, time is ticking.
As always though the Arsenal style of football and ethos remains – a commitment to short one touch passing with movement in between the lines of opposition players. Yet there is a bullishness about this team too, they want to get stuck in and intimidate opposition players, sometimes a bit too much. Some leadership may well be required to try and direct energy into the football rather than confrontation.
It’s difficult to know what exactly Arsenal are aiming for this year in terms of the league. With their current squad, Champions League qualification must be the aim. If money is spent though then they may be able to look a little higher and compete with City, Chelsea and United. Away from the league, silverware in any of the cups would be welcomed. Another barren year though may well spend the end of Wenger’s reign.
It’s been a good start to the season by United. Three competitive wins in a row have provided three very different games. The comeback against Man City; the hard-fought win at West Brom; and most recently the cruise on Monday night versus Spurs. The win over Tottenham showed the kind of depth United have at the moment – the bench had Berbatov, Carrick, Giggs and Park whilst the younger generation of players on the pitch did the business. Confidence is high and there is a buzz around the squad right now as well as trust from the fans that whoever is selected can do the business.
Pre-season is nearly a distant memory but it’s worth remembering that it too went well for United and to date they’ve scored 34 goals in 9 games – 6 pre-season friendlies, the Community Shield and two league games.
Arsenal had a tricky pre-season. A young squad did ok in the Far East before failing to win the Emirates Cup back in London. Their friendly fixtures ended with their only non-competitive defeat against Benfica. They’ve only picked up one point from their opening two league games as they drew with 10 men at Newcastle and then lost at home to Liverpool – again ending the game with 10 men. Injuries and suspensions have seen Wenger call upon inexperienced youngsters to fill gaps; this made Arsenal’s Champions League progression over Udinese all the more impressive than it should have been.
United are much closer to having a fully fit squad than one might realise. Only Vidic and Rafael are long-term(ish) absentees – everyone else is back in training or fit. The game is probably too soon for Antonio Valencia, he’s in training but hasn’t had any minutes with the Reserves yet. Darren Fletcher is part of the match-day squad having completed 90 minutes for the Reserves on Thursday evening. Rio Ferdinand should also be available but may not be risked after Jones and Evans played so well against Spurs. Hernandez joins Berbatov, Macheda, Owen and Diouf in trying to remove either Welbeck or Rooney from their starting berths now after Ferguson declared him ready for selection.
Unlike United, Arsenal are in a spot of bother in terms of availability. Gibbs, Diaby, Koscielny, Squillaci and Wilshere will definitely miss the game through injury. Sagna is a big doubt due to illness whilst Vermaelen will need a fitness test before he can be confirmed as ‘available’. Song, Frimpong and Gervinho all miss out through suspension. It means Arsenal are having to take a number of youngsters up to Old Trafford with them, including Oguzhan Özyakup and Francis Coquelin.
United formation and starting XI prediction:
It’s one hell of a dilemma Sir Alex has ahead of this game. He has a youthful team playing very well in a 4-4-2. At its core are youthful players who’ve stepped up wonderfully well to the challenge of performing for United. However, this is Arsenal and Fergie likes a 4-5-1 whether home or away. Furthermore, it’s one of those games where an experienced head or two may not go amiss. Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve opted for caution, (again).
Defensively there’s little to play around with. If Rio is ready to start a game as the boss has suggested then there is a case to be made for having him alongside probably Evans. However, Rio’s ageing body seems to take badly to being rushed back so a place on the bench seems more sensible, especially given how well Evans and Jones did last week. The only other position that could be debated over would be the right back area. Smalling though doesn’t look far off a natural fullback and despite Fabio’s availability he should continue to play from the start.
Ahead of the defence it all gets a bit hazy. Arsenal always play a three man central midfield and United have had lots of success sticking a player on the deepest of the three to occupy him. That player has often been Anderson, yet he’s doing a fine job going box-to-box at the moment so instead I think Park will play behind Rooney, often switching with Young. Despite Cleverley’s wonderful form, Carrick may be the experienced head in the middle of the pitch that United need – up against youth and inexperience it’ll be an advantage to have some older players in. If things aren’t going as planned there is always the option of bringing Cleverley on like in the Community Shield. Nani and Young may well hold the key for United as they come up against probably Jenkinson and Traore – both United wingers have started the season well and should relish the chance to come up against ‘lesser’ players.
Despite the fact that it looks like United have gone one up front with Rooney in my team, Nani, Young and Park all get forward well and would support Rooney. It is feasible that Welbeck, Berbatov or Hernandez will be selected to partner Rooney but for me, it’s safety first; no need to go all-out attack from the start.
United are fortunate to have these kind of problems. Whether it’s a cautious 4-5-1 type formation or the bold, entertaining, youthful 4-4-2 of recent weeks, United should be able to dominate against a heavily depleted Arsenal side at the moment.
Nani/Young vs. Traore – In theory United should worry about Van Persie and Walcott’s good form but instead I think the key area United can win the game in tomorrow will be out wide. It remains unclear whether Sagna will be fit to start but it looks certain that Armand Traore will be at left back for Arsenal. Despite being quick and direct, Traore is susceptible to just that – pace in short bursts and directness. The movement of Nani and Young inside and outside fullbacks this season has already been exciting to watch, particularly because they’ve each added to their game. Young, surprisingly is much more of a team player than he appeared to be at Aston Villa, tirelessly working hard to win the ball back; whilst Nani looks even deadlier, faster, stronger and more confident.
Traore has only played in 25 games since the start of the 2009 season – injuries and an inability to keep his fitness levels up have been the main reasons behind this. He’s previously suffered from a lack of confidence and after a loan spell at Juventus last year, the conclusion over his future was: “he could be a solid back up player” – not great if he’s to start at Old Trafford. Winning this battle will put Arsenal on the back-foot. They like to try to encourage teams to go through the middle where they tend to pack-it-out; going wide will only hurt them in areas where the personnel are likely to have minimal experience.
On paper, certain players on each side in certain areas of the pitch can cancel each other out – however when it comes to winger vs. fullback battles, United have a huge advantage over Arsenal tomorrow. Form and confidence make Nani and Young key players.
History and last meeting:
With the exception of a 6-1 drubbing, this fixture rarely provides lots of goals. In 19 previous games, only 33 goals have been scored with United averaging a goal every 1.3 games and Arsenal averaging less than a goal a game. However, Arsenal have got three league wins at Old Trafford, the last came in September 2006. That said, Arsenal have only managed 3 goals in their last 8 visits to United; that said, United have only scored 9 in that same time-frame too. Arsenal have never scored more than one goal in a league game since the Premier League started, at Old Trafford.
Last season United won this fixture 1-0 – a looping header from Park went in off the far post in what was a controlled victory. Whilst Arsenal had the ball for long periods of play, United were more than able to keep them 30+ yards from goal, seemingly going nowhere. It’s worth noting that Rooney managed to miss a penalty in the game, something often forgotten.
Arsenal are missing so many players for one reason or another and are yet to click into gear in the league. Their record at Old Trafford isn’t awful but they struggle to score goals there. By contrast, United having found some early season rhythm and have a swagger about their play at the moment. Therefore I predict a 2-0 United win.
Howard Webb – has refereed one game this season, showing 6 yellow cards.
– Ferguson and Wenger have faced each other 45 times before: Ferguson has 20 wins; Wenger has 16 wins; and there have been 9 draws.
– United are unbeaten at home in the league in nearly 17 months.
– United are good at making their substitutions count – last season subs scored 11 goals for them, more than any other team.
– Danny Welbeck’s last five league goals have all been headers – fitting given that over the past year United have scored more headers than any other side.
– It’s 42 years since Arsenal started a season without scoring in their first two games.
The Stretford-End.com team have each given a predicted starting XI and final score ahead of the game – give us yours here.
For all pre-match banter, tactical discussions, team and score predictions click here.